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Last moonwalkers look ahead

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The last men on the moon never imagined they would still hold that title 25 years later. They’re disappointed that others have not yet followed in their footsteps. But they say Apollo’s legacy is a tribute to the thousands who played a part in the grand adventure.

Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt blasted off from the lunar surface Dec. 14, 1972, fully aware that theirs was the last Apollo moon mission, but fully expecting that humans would soon return for the next phase of exploration.

Cernan says he thought humans would be on their way to Mars by the turn of the century. “I said so back in 1972: Apollo was not the end, but it was the beginning of a whole new era in the history of mankind,” he recalls.

Schmitt — the first scientist on the moon — was so committed to continued lunar missions that he fumed over President Richard Nixon’s statement that Apollo 17 “may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon.”

But the New Mexico geologist-astronaut went on to serve a term in the U.S. Senate, and with the benefit of that political perspective he now says his expectations were “obviously naive.”

“The situation is totally different now, and in fact I do not expect the government to be a major player either for going back to the moon or indeed for human beings going on into deep space,” says Schmitt, 62.

He says the federal government’s “inability to deal with the issue of social entitlements” means that less money will be available for discretionary spending on things such as space exploration.

When President John Kennedy declared that America chose to go to the moon, he didn’t spell out what would happen afterward. The clearest rationale the government could come up with for settling the moon was to beat the Soviets — an idea that has been rendered dead as the dinosaurs.

But Schmitt believes the private sector will find its own rationale for going back to the moon, perhaps to exploit its energy resources. As a consultant and geology professor, he devotes much of his time to studying how lunar material could be used as a safe, clean fuel for future fusion reactors.

Schmitt explains that a ton of helium-3 extracted from the moon could provide as much energy as $3 billion worth of coal. That energy could be used to provide electricity on Earth or the power for future spacecraft, he says.

Legacy of Apollo
Both Schmitt and Cernan say the early space program was a once-in-a-lifetime endeavor — something that can’t be measured using a balance sheet or a ballot box.

“Even 25 years later I probably don’t fully appreciate it yet,” says Cernan, 63, who now heads a Houston aerospace consulting firm and is writing a book about his experiences. “I certainly didn’t [appreciate it] completely when I was on the moon.”

Cernan says the view of Earth floating in a black sky over the lunar horizon changed the human perspective forever. “We haven’t done much with that change yet,” he says, “but it was truly a significant step ... in the history of mankind’s evolution on this planet and in the universe.”

Even decades after their trip, Cernan and Schmitt still feel the glow of public adulation. (Apollo 17 colleague Ronald Evans, who stayed in lunar orbit while the others went down to the surface, died of a heart attack in 1990.) But both moonwalkers say the true essence of Apollo was embodied by the tens of thousands who worked behind the scenes to get Americans into space.

Cernan praises them as “the people who didn’t know it couldn’t be done.”

For his part, Schmitt says he would raise a monument to the young people who put aside their personal lives to make the Apollo dream come true.

“Accomplishments like Apollo become possible because young men and women in their 20s believe that it’s the most important thing they can do with their lives,” he says. “They make it happen. The money doesn’t make it happen.”

Recapturing the spirit
Cernan believes that the abrupt end to human missions to deep space dealt a blow to the morale of younger astronauts. In his view, there was an unspoken promise that the younger generation would quickly follow the lead of the Apollo veterans, pressing on even to Mars.

“We sorta let ’em down,” he says. “We planted a seed, and then we sorta took it away from them.”

Cernan voices a complaint often heard among the veterans of NASA’s glory days: that the current space effort lacks the vision of Apollo, that no one seems willing to take the kinds of calculated risks that were necessary to get Americans to the moon.

“Our culture today maybe is mirrored by NASA’s approach to space. We sorta want to be fail-safe,” he says.

But Schmitt believes that the moon can no longer serve to inspire a grand adventure. Just as Lewis and Clark were followed by fur traders, farmers and frontier entrepreneurs, the next wave of lunar voyagers may have to be motivated by financial opportunity rather than a national mission.

So what destination will serve for the future Lewis and Clark, for the spiritual descendants of the Apollo breed? Perhaps it will be Mars. But Schmitt believes our sights may have to be set higher.

He says it’s more likely that the next major effort will involve “moving out away from Mars into the far solar system, or indeed ... beginning to try to move toward a nearby star.”

“That will be the next great human adventure.”

This report was published on Nov. 17, 1997.